LANGUAGE LESSONS – Movie Review (SXSW 2021)

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The pandemic’s challenge to the movie industry has certainly pushed the envelope on cinematic creativity. When scheduled productions large and small, studio and indie, were simply shut down or delayed, cinema creatives who work above and below the line were left with a frustrating dearth of work and angst galore.

But, to quote that old saw, necessity is the mother of invention and talented filmmakers began developing new projects with adjusted production strategies and methodology so they could bring new and engaging stories to screens. There has been so much inventive production that has resulted in so many — mostly small and indie — movie that we might site ‘pandemic production’ as a new moving image genre.

Language Lessons, which had its US premier at SXSW 2021 Online, is a fine example of pandemic moviemaking at its best. Its conceit is simple, believable and appealing. There is nothing gimmicky about the production. Almost all of the action takes place via the internet — so there’s no need for social distancing and any inherent concern about or danger of contagion is eliminated.

Language Lessons is essentially a tale of two characters who meet serendipitously on the internet. The story begins with their first encounter and follows their developing relationship as they find in and for each other the kind of compassion that’s the foundation of true friendship. From afar and via the internet they offer each other support during harrowingly emotional experiences.

Language Lessons, co-written by stars Mark Duplass and Natalie Morales, who also directed, mines pandemic-related themes such as the agony of isolation and the need for human interaction. And the need to be needed and dealing with death and the prospect of death. But it is not a pandemic story per se. In fact, there’s no mention of the pandemic in the film.

Adam (Duplass), a wealthy Bay area homebody, is given a subscription to 100 online Spanish lessons by his homebody husband for a birthday present. Adam already speaks some Spanish, but it will be entertaining to sharpen his skills. His tutor, a bilingual lass named Cariño (Morales), is in Costa Rica — and the lessons are to take place via regularly scheduled internet meetups.

The first lesson is pleasant enough, and both characters are established as smart and unpretentious people who relate to each other openly. But quite soon their relationship deepens when Adam’s circumstances change and Cariño shows him true compassion Duplass and Morales have a striking chemistry and the way their characters’ relationship evolves is emotionally engaging. They are two people who are essentially alone and they find solace and support in each other.

Adam and Cariño come from very different circumstances and discussion of white privilege and other trending social issues comes into play, making their chatter quite relevant. But trending topics are touched on as the two speak openly about their perspectives and are never delivered as polemics.

Language Lessons is affecting, and funny and provocative. The story, the characters and their responses to each other are thoroughly believable and relatable, especially as pandemic-related isolation has put us all in the position of relating to each other through the internet. It’s is a wonderful way to spend an hour and a half. Hopefully it will find distribution soon.

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